Republicans poised for biggest gains in Congress for a century

Gloating has already begun as Obama's critics anticipate revenge for 2008

As the last frantic campaigning wound down and Americans prepared to vote in congressional elections today, the party of Barack Obama searched for even the slightest glimmer of hope, but found almost none. Revenge for 2008 seemed so close for Republicans and their allied Tea Party insurgents, they could taste it.

A Gallup poll showed voters favouring Republicans nationally over Democrats by a 15-point margin, suggesting the party may achieve the largest seat grab in the House of Representatives in over a century. Certainly, the net gain of 39 seats needed to take control of the chamber seems within reach.

The gloating has begun. "You blew it, President Obama," Sarah Palin said on Fox TV. "We gave you the two years to fulfil your promise of making sure that our economy starts roaring back to life again."

"The Democrats are about to feel the force of hurricane winds," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who co-directed a poll for the Wall Street Journal and NBC News.

After a weekend campaign swing in several pivotal states, including Illinois, President Obama stayed in the White House yesterday. Vice-President Joe Biden was in Delaware last night helping Democrat Chris Coons hold off Tea Party ultra-conservative Christine O'Donnell, while ex-President Bill Clinton was in Kentucky where Tea Party darling Rand Paul seems set to win his US Senate contest.

The election will see voters fill all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 37 of the 100 seats in the Senate. A number of states are also choosing governors and voting on ballot initiatives on divisive topics ranging from abortion and marijuana use to tax policy and gun control.

With many vital races considered too-close-to-call, the exact scale of the Republican reawakening remained hard to predict. Most experts continued to believe that while winning back the House, the party would fall short of snatching control of the Senate from the Democrats. A split Congress, however, would still severely shackle President Obama as he attempts to revive his fortunes in the second half of his term.

Last-minute intelligence from several vital races served to compound Democrat gloom, not least in Illinois, where a new PPP poll gave a slight advantage to the Republican candidates for both the US Senate seat once held by Mr Obama and for the Illinois governorship. A rout in Illinois would prove especially demoralising for Democrats.

The star guest at Joe's Bar on Weed Street in North Chicago on Sunday night at an event for Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk, was Senator Scott Brown, the Tea Party-backed underdog who stunned Democrats by snatching Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in Massachusetts in January.

"It's him against the machine," Senator Brown told the crowd pointing to Mr Kirk. "If it can happen in Massachusetts, it's definitely gonna happen in Illinois," he said.

Blocks away, Democrat officials distributed get-out-the-vote flyers at a Halloween parade while trying to ignore the symbolism of costumes depicting blood and gore. The new poll showed Mr Kirk up four points over Alex Giannoulias, the Democrat who shared a stage with President Obama at a huge rally on Saturday night.

Similarly discouraging for Democrats was new polling data from Washington State where incumbent Senator Patty Murray had seemed for weeks to be just holding off challenger Dino Rossi. But the new numbers showed her slipping just behind Rossi for the first time at the worst moment.

Only in Alaska was there anything close to encouragement for the Democrats. Scott McAdams, Mayor of Sitka, was being touted as the possible beneficiary of a three-way Senate struggle also featuring incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski and Tea Party favourite Joe Miller, who has been hit by a number of controversies.

McAdams remains a long-shot, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released $160,000 at the weekend to fund his new advertising campaign. "We believe that Scott McAdams actually has a real chance of winning this race," committee chairman Senator Robert Menendez said.

Whatever the details from individual races, few doubt that America will awake tomorrow to a starkly different political reality. Mr Obama, who leaves on Thursday for a 10-day Asia tour, will have to re-evaluate his chances of working with Republicans on Capitol Hill to avert gridlock for two years.

But Republican leaders will have to adjust too, in particular if they find themselves joined by a significant caucus of newly conservative colleagues sent to Washington by Tea Party enthusiasts. New faces unlikely to show much love for the Republican leadership may include Marco Rubio from Florida and Rand Paul from Kentucky.

Republican Christine O'Donnell, who is fighting for a Senate seat in Delaware, was not expected to win. In Nevada Sharron Angle's bid to oust Harry Reid was going to the wire.

Democrats will try to convince themselves it could have been worse. In spite of dipping approval ratings, Mr Obama remains the most popular active politician in the land. (Bill Clinton beats him easily if you include retired politicians.) They will also know that the Republicans are not exactly loved either. In an ABC poll, 67 per cent said they disapproved of the performance of Republicans in Congress.

President Obama made his last appeal to Democrats at a Cleveland rally late on Sunday. "Don't let anybody tell you this fight isn't worth it," he said at Cleveland State University, where he was supporting the re-election bid of Governor Ted Strickland. "It's always been hard to bring about change."

The Republicans would be likely to put John Boehner of Ohio in the House Speaker's chair, replacing Nancy Pelosi, if they win back the House. Some pollsters predict they will achieve twice the 39-seat net gain they need to retake majority status. That would compare to the 54-seat shift from Democrats to Republicans in 1994, midway through President Clinton's first term.

Election day

Americans go to the polls today to cast their votes in races for the Senate, the House ofRepresentatives, and to decide on a host of referendums known as ballot initiatives. Not every state votes in every part of the poll, but the overall result could mean as dramatic a change in the country's national politics as Barack Obama's election did two years ago.

The key moments today and early Wednesday (GMT)

13:00 It's all over bar the ticking, punching and button pressing. Watch Democrats who may be casualties tonight (Harry Reid?) smile as they disappear behind the curtains.

22:00 The pundits put on the make-up. Fox TV will welcome Sarah Palin, Karl Rove and NewtGingrich. Ex-Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos heads up the ABC coverage.

MIDNIGHT Polls close in key eastern states. Three House races in Indiana will indicate the strength of the Republican surge. The party must win all three decisively. Has Tea Party darling Rand Paul snatched US Senate seat in Kentucky. If he has beaten Democrat Jack Conway, you will know the Tea Party revolution is real.

01:00 A deluge of results from remaining states east of the Mississippi and the picture gets clearer. Who got Obama's former Senate seat in Illinois? Pay attention to Florida.

02:00 Lots from the West. The snowy peaks of the Rockies turned pretty blue for the Dems in 2008, but lots of races might return them to red for the Republicans again.

03:00 Hit the Strip! The big enchilada of this campaign: has Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, been stripped of his seat by Tea Party extremist Sharron Angle?

06:00 Still can't sleep? The intriguing three-way Senate race in Alaska will at last be decided. Or will it? A complicated ballot paper means results could be days coming.

13:00 THURSDAY Obama gets out of town. Before the President has time to reach for the anti-depressants, the Secret Service will bundle him on his plane. He is Asia-bound for ten days.

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